The Wines of France — Rules, Regions, and Ruminations

Deciphering the naming conventions, labeling, and minutiae of French wine can be overwhelming. It almost makes you want to give up. But then you taste the wine, and suddenly all is forgiven.


vinyard with church in foreground

“French wine laws… get excited!”

Sarcasm aside, a class on French wine can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you get to drink wines from what many in the business feel are the best winemakers in the world. On the other hand… deciphering the naming conventions, labeling, and more can be overwhelming.

It almost makes you want to give up. But then you taste the wine, and suddenly all is forgiven.

It’s then that you appreciate the care and the discipline that goes into all the funny names and rules. That the whole complicated process is not designed to be difficult or pretentious, but rather reflects a respect for the ingredients and an appreciation of true craft.

That’s the goal of Uncorked Kitchen’s signature Wines of France class, a wine tasting event which pairs a little talk with a few slides, and a lot of wine to help the knowledge go down (if not always retained).


The Region-based Categories of French Wine

Let’s start with the obvious, France primarily categorizes its wines based on regions, not varietal. In fact, you won’t see the name of the grape on a French wine bottle (except for one area, which we’ll explain below).

So taking a moment to understand the distinctions between regions will go a long way. For instance, a bottle labeled "Burgundy" is known to be made from Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white wines.

Quality Pyramid and Tiers

If that were all, it would be easy enough. But then comes the quality pyramids assigned to each region… that’s where the French wine laws come into play.

The French quality pyramid consists of three tiers in descending order:

  • AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) – This indicates the geographical origin of the wine and requires adherence to specific quality standards and overall style. These standards include grape varieties, yields, alcohol levels, and other factors.
  • VdP (Vin de Pays) – Translated as "wine of the land," this category emphasizes geographical origin rather than adhering strictly to style and tradition. Winemakers have more flexibility under VdP regulations compared to AOC.
  • VdF (Vin de France) – This is the most basic tier, replacing the Vin de Table category. It has the least amount of regulation and is the least utilized. VdF wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in France, without specifying a particular region of origin. The labels may or may not include vintage and grape variety information.

But wait… there’s more! The different winemaking regions in France have their own unique, additional quality tiers, with various levels of “crus” but with different criteria. For example, ranking might be based on the vineyard, village, château, and so on.

What’s more, the style of wine produced from each region and the rules that govern their labeling were designed with the cuisine of each area as well, taking the cooking maxim “what grows together goes together” beyond the plate and into the glass. If pairing great wine with great food is your goal, then even more reason to embrace the taxonomy of French wine appellation distinctions.


The WINEMAKER DELIVERS THE QUALITY

But the rules only deliver value to a point. There is of course differentiation between the various producers in each region. While it ensures everyone plays by the same rules, some will just be better players. Rules and labels only guarantee a wine’s origin. The winemaker’s craft delivers the quality.

That’s where the tasting comes in. Who doesn’t like a good wine tasting? But sampling wine from the different regions of France with an expert on hand to explain the whats and the whys adds a welcome level of mindfulness to the experience designed to transcend mere enjoyment to longer-lasting education (so you can enjoy even more again and again on your own).

In the most recent Wines of France class, we covered a range of wines — three white, three red. Clearly not all regions of France could fit into a single tasting, but it gave a useful overview, including:

White Wines of France

Loire Valley

The Loire Valley sits in the western part of France, spanning the Loire River (the country’s longest. It is the 3rd largest wine region in France, and the 2nd largest region for sparkling wine (after Champagne of course).

The most popular and notable wines from the region include:

  • Muscadet (Melon de Bougogne)
  • Savennieres (Chenin Blanc)
  • Vouvray (Chenin Blanc)
  • Chinon (Cabernet Franc)
  • Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc)

Champagne

The northernmost winemaking area in France features a cooler climate and higher altitudes which make it harder for the berries to ripen and encourage more acidity – perfect for bubbles. Grapes used in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (Blanc de Blanc vs. Blanc de Noirs).

Champagnes are often labeled by their dryness, which ranked in ascending order as:

  • Brut Nature/ Brut Zero
  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra Dry
  • Dry
  • Demi-Sec
  • Doux

Alsace

On the northeast section of France bordering Germany, French and German culture come together here, as it has changed hands between the two countries several times. It is the only region in France where it is legal to grow Riesling, considered a German grape and the only AOC that is allowed to designate its wines by varietal (as the Germans do). Alsace also has two quality tiers of its own – general Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru.

Alsace is known mostly for dry white wines, notably

  • Riesling
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Gewürztraminer

… but also make Pinot Noir and excellent dessert wines.


Red Wines of France

Bordeaux

Straddling the left and right banks of the Gironde estuary, Bordeaux has always been a prominent wine region due to its advantageous position as a port on the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to some of the most sought-after wines in the world and is the largest fine-wine producing area on the globe (nearly every acre under vine produces AOC wine).

The two banks define the major subregions of the area, with the Left Bank offering more Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blends (Médoc and Graves), and the Right Bank leaning more Merlot (Pomerol and Saint-Emilion).

Bordeaux is also home to fantastic dry white wines made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, as well as Sauternes, one of the highest regarded dessert wines in the world.

Burgundy

Located just south of Champagne, Burgundy is also cooler than the more southern red-producing regions, and is primarily known for just two grapes — Chardonnay and Pinot Noire.

But, it can be a finicky region with wide differences in terrior between producers. There are about 115,000 acres under vine in the region, divided among 15,000 owners. This in part leads it to have it’s own classification system

  • Grand Cru
  • Premiere Cru
  • Village
  • District
  • Regional

Languedoc-Roussillon & SW France

This is the more fun, experimental “wild west” region of France. This area has some well- known AOC’s

  • Cahors (original home of Malbec)
  • Languedoc/Roussillon (known for bright and juicy red blends as well as crisp and

unoaked whites)

Given its freestyling ways, much of the wine here is classified as Vin de Pays, but that “lower” classification doesn’t mean much in the region.

There are many other regions, many with their own focus on varietals, some with their own classification laws, and more. And each serves as a guide to what kinds of wines you might expect based on the grapes grown there and the climate.

But ultimately, it comes down to the unique terrior of the acreage where the wines are grown, the age of the vines, the fermentation and storage conditions used, and of course the experience, craft, and dedication of the winemakers themselves.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WINE, WINE APPRECIATION, WINE PAIRING, AND MORE?

Check out the Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar event calendar for the next wine tasting and event coming up soon.


Antony Bruno is a Colorado-based veteran storyteller, writer and editor. After 30 years of writing about the intersection of technology and culture, he’s spending the next 30 writing about food, wine, travel, and adventure.


Hours

Closed Monday & Sunday
Tuesday-Friday 3pm–10pm
Saturday 2pm-10pm

HAPPY HOUR

Tuesday-Friday from 3pm–5pm

Newsletter